What is Diabetes Mellitus?

Diabetes mellitus is not the same as diabetes insipidus

Mellitus
Mellitus means "sweet urine" because the excess sugar in the bloodstream "spills" into the urinary tract. Photographers Choice RF/Getty Images

Diabetes mellitus, or as it's more commonly known diabetes, is a disease characterized by an excess of blood glucose, or blood sugar, which builds up in the bloodstream when your body isn't able to adequately process the sugar in food. High blood sugar is an abnormal state for the body and creates specific symptoms and possible long-term health problems if blood sugar is not managed well.

The word "mellitus," as in diabetes mellitus, means “honey-sweet.” Diabetes was first identified as a disease associated with "sweet urine," because when blood glucose is elevated, what's called hyperglycemia, it spills glucose into the urine, which would make it taste sweet.

Diabetes has been recorded throughout history, since Egyptian times. It was given the name diabetes by the ancient Greek physician Araetus of Cappodocia. The full term, however, was not coined until 1675 in Britain by Thomas Willis, who rediscovered that the blood and urine of people with diabetes was sweet. This phenomenon had previously been discovered by ancient Indians.

Diabetes mellitus is different from the less common diabetes insipidus. 

Types of Diabetes

There are three types of diabetes: 

  • Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas stops or nearly stops producing the hormone insulin. Insulin is needed to enable blood glucose to be used for energy by the body. People with type 1 diabetes must take daily insulin injections. Type 1 diabetes has also been referred to as insulin-dependent diabetes and juvenile diabetes.
  • Type 2 diabetes occurs when the body is unable to make effective use of the insulin the pancreas does make. This is often referred to as insulin resistance. Obesity is a major cause of insulin resistance in both adults and children. Type 2 diabetes has also been called non-insulin dependent diabetes and adult-onset diabetes. 
  • Gestational diabetes occurs in women who have high blood sugar during pregnancy but have not been diagnosed with diabetes previously. After delivery of the baby, many women see their blood sugar return to normal. Some women will go on to develop type 2 diabetes.

Diabetes Insipidus

Diabetes insipidus is characterized by excessive urination and thirst, as well as a general feeling of weakness.

While these can also be symptoms of diabetes mellitus, if you have diabetes insipidus your blood sugar levels will be normal and no sugar present in your urine. Diabetes insipidus is a problem of fluid balance caused by a problem with the kidneys, where they can't stop the excretion of water. Polyuria (excessive urine) and polydipsia (excessive thirst) occur in diabetes mellitus as a reaction to high blood sugar.

Diabetes insipidus is considered very rare with less 20,000 cases diagnosed per year. Diabetes mellitus is more common, with type 2 diabetes being more common than type 1. There are more than 3 million cases of type 2 diabetes. Unlike diabetes mellitus, diabetes insipidus is not treated by controlling insulin levels. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe a low-salt diet, hormone therapy, or have you increase your water intake. 

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